copyright © 2008 Betsy L. Angert. BeThink.org
She gave him life through her wit, wisdom, work, and commitment to family. Madelyn Dunham helped to teach her grandson the importance of sincerity and service. Ms Dunham, Barack Obama's grandmother, physically gave birth to the woman who conceived the potential President, Stanley Ann Dunham. Her being, who she was as a person, created more than a daughter, or the baby her offspring later brought into the world. Grandma Dunham, "Toot," mentored the man who now makes history.
Madelyn Dunham walked a path her grandson embraces. She was the precursor, the predecessor, and a pioneer prior to Barack Obama's thought to pursue the Presidency.
The 86 year-old, who passed on the eve before the child she raised would, perchance, win a bid for the White House, traveled a feminist trail. In Hawaii, in the late 1960s, this petite and proper woman entered the business world. She began her career as a humble bank teller. However, with grit and gumption, this courageous lady climbed in banking circles. Madelyn Dunham's professional journey began before other daughters of Eve, even on the mainland, sought to survive in a "man's work world." By the early 1970s, she had become one of Bank of Hawaii's first female Vice Presidents.
A young Barack Obama watched his grandmother do as he hopes to do today. She overcame odds and broke through barriers, real and, those while palpable, invisible.
In earlier decades, in Hawaii, the way of a white woman was not easy. Discrimination was direct. Discretion was not the better part of valor. Indeed, valor was not found in vicious cries of condemnation. Native Hawaiians were brash in their bigotry.
Sam Slom, a Bank of Hawaii economist then, who is now a Republican state senator in Hawaii, recalls that as a part of the white - or "haole" - minority in Hawaii, he would regularly see housing ads that made no effort to hide racial preferences. He says he remembers ads that read, "No haoles" or "AJAs (Americans of Japanese ancestry) Only" or "No Japanese."
"That's the way it was," Slom said. "Did people talk about race? We had local jokes ... like that 'pake' (Chinese) guy or the 'yobo' (Korean) who did this or that.
Madelyn Dunham however, did not let such racist rants intimidate her. As mentioned in her grandson's autobiography, Dreams From My Father," "Toot" as he called her [short for tutu, Hawaiian for grandmother] befriended a Black custodial worker. She sympathized with her daughter who at a young age was harassed for her friendship with a dark-skinned classmate. The "Grande Dame" Dunham did not dare be as intolerant as society might have taught her to be.
As her grandson, Barack Obama, reminded Americans when race became an issue in the Presidential campaign, on rare occasions, Madelyn Dunham might have slipped. She may have allowed words that expressed her apprehension of strangers to surface. At times, the gracious grandmother stated what she wished she had not. When she did, she was struck hard. For in her heart, she had faith, humans are all honorable, no matter their color, creed, or country of origin. Madelyn Dunham, the mentor of the highest magnitude, learned from her errors and taught as she embodied. Empathy is our essence; it is the greatest educator.
If fear caused her to fall from grace, Ms Dunham would remember that persons she loved, ones who were pure of heart and soul, principled beings, Black and Yellow, Brown and Pink, were her darlings. Indeed, in truth, she never forgot. The woman who gave her home and her self to her grandchildren, Soetoro-Ng of Indonesian descent and Barack Obama, an African American ancestry embraced the beauty that enveloped her.
Ms Dunham understood as too many Americans do not. Momentary fear of those unfamiliar to us may evoke what need not be more than a temporary trepidation. The woman who would teach a man who might become President of the United States was aware, each and every day. Intolerance is born of ignorance. When we ignore the possibility that others are similar to us, we are scared by the strangeness that we believe we see.
Madelyn Dunham lived with this wisdom. Barack Obama learned to. Now, the Presidential hopeful teaches the American people to ponder. Differences need not divide us.
Through her temperament, Toot taught. We are all equal. Every man, woman and child is a person of this planet, until they pass. Then, they are with us all universally.
Madelyn Dunham, today, and everyday, we will mourn your passing. We will also rejoice and remember what you have given us through your family. May you rest in peace, comfortable in the knowledge, that your grandchildren and we know, "(Madelyn Dunham) She was the cornerstone of our family, and a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength and humility." Madelyn Dunham has mentored America well.
America's Teacher Toot Transitions . . .
- Family precedent: Obama's grandmother blazed trails, By Dan Nakaso. USA Today. April 6, 2008
- Dreams From My Father, By Barack Obama
- Obama's grandmother dies of cancer in Hawaii. Reuters. November 3, 2008